So that happened

From today’s New York Times:

In a 6-to-3 vote, split along ideological lines, the Supreme Court sided on Friday with a web designer in Colorado who said she had a First Amendment right to refuse to provide services for Jews, despite a state law that forbids discrimination against Jewish people.

The case, though framed as a clash between free speech and the rights of Jews, was the latest in a series of decisions in favor of conservative Christians, who celebrated the ruling on Friday.

In dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor called the ruling “profoundly wrong,” arguing that the Colorado anti-discrimination law “targets conduct, not speech, for regulation, and the act of discrimination has never constituted protected expression under the First Amendment. Our Constitution contains no right to refuse service to a disfavored group.”

The designer, Lorie Smith, said her Christian faith requires her to turn away customers seeking wedding-related services to celebrate Jewish unions. She added that she intends to post a message saying the company’s policy is a product of her religious convictions.

A Colorado law forbids discrimination against Jews by businesses open to the public as well as statements announcing such discrimination. Ms. Smith, who has not begun the wedding business or posted the proposed statement for fear of running afoul of the law, sued to challenge it, saying it violated her rights to free speech and the free exercise of religion.

More, not better

I had a conversation today with somebody who questioned the value of technological advances in media. As we begin the transition from mass social media on phones to social media on wearables, she pointed out that this is not necessarily an improvement.

I countered that humans are not really in the business of becoming better over time. We are, rather, in the business of becoming “more”.

Our superpower of language allows us to create all sorts of new means of communicating with each other. None of these means of communication, be they written language, recorded audio, movies or internet, are making us better.

Instead, they are making us more powerful in our ability to communicate with one another. And that power, alas, does not with a free card that says “use only for good.”

With each new technological advance, we remain as complicated, messy and morally compromised as ever. But we become, undoubtedly, better and better at being complicated, messy and morally compromised.

Good morning kids

Shortly after I boarded a flight this week, Mickey Mouse got on the airplane PA and said “Good morning kids, it’s your old pal Mickey!”

Then the guy reverted to his real voice and said “Sorry, I’m also an actor who works in Orlando, and sometimes I mix up the roles.”

For the entire flight, I was curious to know which flight attendant had made that announcement. As I was leaving the plane, I turned to the flight attendant standing at the front, and I said “Tell Mickey I said thanks!”

To my surprise, she leaned into the cockpit and said to the pilot “Looks like somebody appreciates you.”

Computer scientist in the family

Today I was talking to someone on a topic unrelated to computer science. At some point she asked me what I do for a living, and I told her that I am a computer scientist.

She said that her brother is also a computer scientist. She added that it’s great to have a computer scientist in the family.

Yes, I said, I know what you mean. It’s a good thing that we are there to warn everyone else about what’s coming.

Unfortunately, nobody ever believes us.

A stone’s throw

Today is the 75th anniversary of two simultaneous events: The birth of the transistor and the birth of the modern horror story. On the same day, June 26, 1948, William Shockley gave the world the bipolar junction transistor and Shirley Jackson gave the world “The Lottery”.

The world is now dealing with the latest manifestation of the power of the transistor — artificial intelligence which eerily mimics human communication. Soon we may find it easier to talk with bots that reinforce our prejudices, than with other people who may challenge them.

We are a stone’s throw from tribal echo-chambers and reflexive group-think becoming so normalized that we forget there was ever any other way of seeing the world. And then “The Lottery” will read like a documentary.

Multiple wars

As I write this, a ruthless warlord is marching toward Moscow, aiming to topple Putin’s Russia. Meanwhile, Putin’s Russia has been attacking Ukraine for more than a year, in a brutal and tragic war of aggression.

Here in the U.S., we conduct our domestic wars in a more subtle way. Today, June 24, is the first anniversary of a declaration of war by our own Supreme Court against half of our own citizens.

It amazes me how much it bothers some people that other people simply want to live their lives in peace.

Forgotten collaborations

Many early collaborations between talented and now celebrated artists have been forgotten in the mists of time. It would be interesting to do a kind of cultural archaeology to rediscover such events.

For example, the Academy Award winning animator John Canemaker and the Academy Award winning actor Joel Grey collaborated more than half a century ago. I’m guessing that very few people remember that.

If you can figure out what they collaborated on, you get extra points. 🙂

The golden age of science fiction

There is an old joke about science fiction, in the form of a riddle:

Q: What was the golden age of science fiction?
A: Twelve

The joke is not only funny — it is also profound. When you are twelve years old you are uniquely positioned between two worlds. There is a part of you that still thinks very much like a child, but for the first time there is also a part of you that thinks like an adult.

Which is really the sweet spot for science fiction. The child in you marvels in wonder at the fantastical worlds opening up to you. Yet the adult in you is starting to think critically about the real subject of science fiction — the human condition, with all of its attendant complexities and moral failings.

When you are twelve you are uniquely able to comfortably inhabit both the child’s view and the adult’s view. And if you are lucky, you continue to retain some of that beautiful mix as you grow older.


Today, the first day of summer, is a good day to talk about seasons. The concept of dividing time into seasons is a little weird.

After all, there is no appreciable difference between the weather on June 20 and June 21. Yet we go ahead and draw a big fat line on the calendar and say “this day is Spring” and “the next day is Summer”.

We also tend to divide entire lives into seasons. We label people as being youngsters, or middle age, or old folks, as though they are undergoing some sort of sudden molting or morphogenesis.

I am not sure that this is healthy. Every time we put someone in a box like that, we take a way a little of their individual humanity.

But if we must “seasonalize” people, the least we can do is let them choose their own preferred season. As for where I am in the seasons of my life, I’ve decided that today is the first day of my summer.